September 22, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Sisters of Providence arrive in Indiana

(Third of five columns)

Sister St. Theodore Guérin and five other Sisters of Providence arrived in New York on Sept. 4, 1840.

The next day, a priest took them to Brooklyn, where they stayed with a woman accustomed to caring for missionaries when they first arrived in the United States.

A man who spoke French then accompanied them to Philadelphia, where they stayed with the Sisters of Charity. There, they met a French priest who was going to Vincennes, Ind., and said they were welcome to accompany him.

They traveled by train, stagecoach and steamboat, and finally reached Madison. There, they met Bishop Celestine de la Hailandière, who told them that they were to be settled near Terre Haute. Another steamboat took them to Evansville, Ind., then a stagecoach carried them to Vincennes.

From there, a Father Buteux, assigned as chaplain for the sisters, accompanied them on non-existent roads through forests and across the Wabash River to Terre Haute, and then on to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. At one point on the journey, their stagecoach overturned in a mud hole.

On Oct. 22, 1840, as Sister St. Theodore was to record later, “We continued to advance into the thick woods until suddenly Father Buteux stopped the carriage and said, ‘Come down, Sisters, we have arrived.’ What was our astonishment to find ourselves still in the midst of the forest, no village, not even a house in sight.”

They were led down into a ravine from which they could see a frame house and some sheds on the other side. This was to be their home, deep in the woods. Sister St. Theodore could only wonder how it would ever be possible to establish a novitiate and a school in this remote forest.

There were four postulants waiting for the sisters, so the community now consisted of 10 women. On the instructions of Bishop de la Hailandière, the sisters began calling Sister St. Theodore “Mother Theodore,” the title she would keep the rest of her life. The sisters began studying English, and Mother Theodore instructed the postulants in the way of religious life.

On Christmas night of 1840, Mother Theodore became critically ill, suffering from fever, severe headaches and periods of unconsciousness. The illness continued for almost two months, and she continued to have poor health the rest of her life.

After she recovered to some extent, Mother Theodore began to plan her academy for girls. By the end of July 1841, 10 young women were studying at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The following March, the sisters opened a school in Jasper, Ind., and, in October 1842, two sisters were sent to St. Francisville, Ill.

During the years that followed, the sisters had numerous trials of all kinds. They suffered from hunger, sometimes going without food for days. They experienced the heat and humidity, and mosquitoes of Indiana summers, and the cold and heavy snow of the winters. They planted crops and raised hogs and other animals on their farm, and were beginning to have a bit more to eat when a fire destroyed their barn and harvest. †



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